The circus follows Pique even in retirement from Spain…

He may have called time on his Spain career after last summer’s World Cup, but Gerard Piqué was still creating headlines this international week.

As his erstwhile international team-mates kicked off their Euro 2020 campaign with victories over Norway and Malta, Piqué was turning out for Catalonia in their 2-1 friendly win over Venezuela.

Despite not being an independent nation nor having official FIFA or UEFA recognition, there’s nothing too unusual about Catalonia playing an ‘international’ friendly; they have been playing roughly one per year since 1997, and played their first such game over a century ago.

Nor is masquerading as an international team exclusive to Catalonia. Over the years, 13 of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities have played similar games against international sides.

But given the heightened political tensions over the independence movement in the region, the game was always likely to be a magnet for political controversy.

When the likes of Galicia or Andalusia play, nobody cares. But when Catalonia are in town, it’s big news. A large number of Catalan fans use the games as a manifestation of support for the independence movement, flying the ‘estelada’ flag and singing pro-secession chants.

Monday night’s game at Girona’s Estadi Montilivi was no exception, and Piqué of all people felt moved to condemn some of the spicier anti-Spain chants. When the chant of ‘qué puta es España’ was struck up on the terraces, Piqué signalled to the crowd to pipe down. In his post-match comments, the Barcelona defender said he made the gesture as “we need to set an example, a lack of respect can’t be tolerated”.

His act of diplomacy, however admirable, has been perceived by some as an appeal to Catalan secessionists to take control of the moral high ground in their dispute with Spain. Despite his long and storied history as a player for the Spanish national team, Piqué is a hugely divisive figure among Spanish fans for his perceived pro-independence beliefs.

He has never publicly declared his support for either side of the independence debate, only that he felt that the Catalan people should have the right to vote on their future, and it is not known whether he is among the roughly 52% of Catalans who would prefer to remain as part of Spain.

But despite his superb service to the national side and his self-proclaimed status as a proud Spaniard as well as a proud Catalan, he is perceived by many as an archetype of independentismo.

Maybe this perception is down to his support for the referendum, his outspoken nature, and his love of Real Madrid-baiting. Many other Spain players have turned out for la selecció catalana over the years while still being held in high esteem by most Spanish fans, including Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol and Sergio Busquets, but it seems a different standard is applied to Piqué.

In recent years, the former Manchester United man was subjected to boos and whistles from his own fans while playing for Spain, and was seemingly unable to win over a section of the national team’s fan-base despite his largely exemplary performance over 102 caps and his key role in the World Cup winning team of 2010. This may well have been a factor in his decision to retire from the national side last year.

His Barcelona team-mate Jordi Alba was quizzed by reporters while on Spain duty on why Piqué decided to play for Catalonia this week. He said: “Gerard has his reasons for playing with the Catalan team” – a deliberately non-committal response which has nevertheless been perceived as an indication of Piqué’s desire to represent Catalonia over Spain.

Catalonia manager Gerard López has insisted that it was definitely not the case that Piqué had stopped playing for Spain in order to play for Catalonia. It’s not as if the two are mutually exclusive anyway – Piqué and others have played for Catalonia during their Spain careers, so the suggestion that he had stopped playing for Spain in order to represent Catalonia is a nonsense in itself.

Piqué himself had to state the obvious in order to defend himself, saying that he would not have played for Catalonia this week if he was still involved with Spain. Of course he wouldn’t, he would be with the Spain squad preparing for the Malta game.

There was no criticism of, for example, Real Betis defender Marc Bartra, who played for Catalonia on Monday despite having been in recent Spain squads, but for Piqué there will always be different standards.

His every move is held up by the press to be inflammatory in one way or another, whether it is warranted or not. He may have hoped for the noise to die down after he hung up his international boots, but it looks as though the circus is still following him into retirement.

Dan Bridges